Riverboat

My father at eighteen or so
a waiter on the Mississippi
learned Cajun French
he unlearned at the university;
brought a steak back a second time
to a suited sir who then demanded
I want this steak black
as black as you are.
Quizzical—too poor to dare allow
the seductive hurt to hear
that nothing in that voice meant
black is proud—
there would be time
and time enough
for that—
the steak went back a third time
and returned a cinder
escorted by a scared kid
unsure of what to feel
and a Cajun chef
who, knowing all the rules,
forced the man to eat
every mouthful.

Martha Vertreace taught English at Kennedy King College and was actively involved with Chicago Call to Action, a Catholic spirituality and justice center, when this poem appeared.

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